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Setting the record straight on Chard’s Kokoda

“I believe that those of us with a stake in PNG's history have a responsibility to call out this book. It is not history. I would ask that you consider publishing my review at PNG Attitude and reach an informed audience who may further spread the word” - Neil Gow



REVIEW - Presumably Daniel Lane’s book, ‘The Digger of Kokoda’, has been written and published to praise the qualities of the Australian soldiers involved in the Papuan campaign in 1942 and highlight these qualities through one man’s story.

These qualities are enshrined on the Isurava Memorial on the Kokoda Trail – courage, mateship, sacrifice and endurance.

There is no shortage of books justifiably lauding the men who fought the Japanese on the Kokoda Trail and later on the northern Papuan beaches at Gona, Sanananda and Buna.

Australian politicians continue to deliver this message at key anniversaries, thus helping to raise these men to the status of heroes.

So the story of Kokoda has been embedded, along with Gallipoli, a part of Australia’s national story.

But I wish to examine what ‘The Digger of Kokoda’ adds to our knowledge and understanding of this military campaign and the men who fought in it.

The centrepiece of the book is the narrative of Private Reg Chard, C Company, 55th Infantry Battalion (not 2/55th as cited in the book) in the Kokoda campaign.

It also relates Chard’s experiences prior to his entering the army and after his discharge.

Chard is cast as a young man coping with overwhelming events who overcomes his youth and Reg lack of military experience to play an important part in the eventual victories of the Australians in Papua.

He achieves this by acting on his own initiative, supporting his mates and persevering against extreme discomfort and disease.

Lane writes that Chard reported to a recruitment office in Martin Place Sydney, but was rejected because he was an apprentice pastry cook, a reserved occupation.

Undeterred, Chard returned a week later, stating his occupation was a storeman, and was registered for service.

In fact, Chard was called up for full-time duty on 24 December 1941 at his local drill hall in Marrickville, where he had previously registered for compulsory military training.

This registration was a long-standing obligation on young Australian men from the age of 18 to attend part-time military training and possibly be mobilised for full time service in the Citizens Military Forces (a militia).

Although many CMF units were already mobilised for home defence, others like the 55th Battalion were understrength.

Japan had attacked Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, bringing the US into the war and bringing greater urgency to the enlistment of young men for military service.

The 55th Battalion arrived in Port Moresby in late May 1942, first being assigned to employment as wharf labourers while also preparing defensive positions around the harbour.

The book goes on to cover their deployment to Milne Bay, the fighting on the Kokoka Trail and finally the brutal offensives against the well-fortified Japanese beachheads at Buna, Gona and Sanananda.

Reg Chard was evacuated ill from Papua in January 1943, and did not return again.

Daniel Lane recounts many events in this period, but they do not square with either Chard’s personal service records or well-established historical accounts.

Lane writes that Chard was on the Trail on 3 October 1942 when his mate, ‘Punchy’ McDonald aggressively and repeatedly demanded a cigarette from General MacArthur at Owers’ Corner.

The incident is further elaborated with a claim that Chard and his mates stepped forward brandishing their .303 rifles and bayonets to protect Punchy from American military police, who had stepped towards him with their hands on revolvers to protect McArthur.

Lane’s description of this event is one of many which raise the question of whether the book is an authentic personal account or an historical novel.

Lane claims that at Owers’ Corner, immediately after the incident with MacArthur, that “half his [Chard’s] mob” were directed personally by the 7th Division commander, General ‘Tubby’ Allen, to march along the Kokoda Trail to reinforce the 2/33rd Battalion which had lost half of its strength as casualties.

In fact the 2/33rd Battalion had little need for reinforcement as its first serious engagement with the Japanese rear-guard was at Myola from 11 to 15 October.

In fact Chard’s 55th Battalion had been returned to Port Moresby to continue building defences around Sapphire Creek and was amalgamated with the depleted 53rd Battalion which had served on the Kokoda Trail.

Lane claims that Chard’s first contact with the enemy was on the Kokoda Track, but that Chard did not recall the location as “I never knew where I was on the Kokoda Trailthere weren’t any signposts.

This is very unlikely as the Track had well-known field ambulance posts, supply points for rations and ammunition, and rudimentary huts. Most were named after villages along the trail.

Lane also claims that Chard, stricken with malaria at Eora Creek, was carried by Papuan porters to Owers’ Corner where he was loaded on a truck and taken to 2/9th Army General Hospital at Port Moresby.

Chard was a patient for 14 days before returning to his unit. There is no record of this sequence of events in his service record.

The Australian advance reached Eora Creek on 21 October, cleared it on 28 October and advanced rapidly through Alawa to Kokoda.

Lane claims that Chard was at Kokoda with the 2/33rd Battalion for the flag-raising ceremony on 3 November. When measured against well-recorded vents, Chard’s timeline is clearly impossible.

The most contentious episode in the book relates Chard’s alleged involvement in early November 1942 in the discovery of the mutilated bodies of 25 European women near Kokoda.

Chard tells of the brutal slaughter by him and his mates of the 40 Japanese troops who had committed the atrocity, who were still at the scene when Chard’s unit reached the scene.

In the book Chard relates that he and his mates kept secret the killing of the Japanese. This is most unlikely.

Such an incident could not have occurred without it being later investigated in the thorough subsequent war crimes investigations of the Webb commission.

This used extensive evidence from the knowledgeable and experienced ANGAU officers including Tom Grahamslaw, Bert Kienzle and Geoffrey ‘Doc’ Vernon who had lived in Papua before the war), local villagers and others.

European people did not just disappear in Papua.

It seems that once again ‘The Digger of Kokoda’ has strayed into fiction.

Chard was with the 55/53rd Battalion at Sanananda after it had been flown from Port Moresby to Soputa and Dobodura on 5 December.

The troops attacked along the Sanananda track on 7 December with disastrous results.

Reading the casualty list in the 55/53rd Battalion’s war diary is heart wrenching and attests the ferocity of this battle.

Those killed included Lieutenant Bill Ryan, Lieutenant O’Donnell (who had signed Mr Chard’s attestation form when he transferred from the CMF to the AIF on 8 August 1942) and Chard’s mates Norm Wolfson, Dick Kayess and James Davidson.

The book claims that the latter two were killed by sniper fire when advancing shoulder to shoulder with Chard.

Lane writes that Chard served at Sanananda until 21 January 1943 when he collapsed from the effects of scrub typhus, although his service record states that he was admitted to 2/9 AGH in Port Moresby on 19 December with malaria, evacuated from Papua on the hospital ship SS Katoomba on 5 January 1943 arriving in Sydney on 13 January 1943.

Once again, Chard’s service record diverges fundamentally from Lane’s account. On 21 January 1943, Chard was in Sydney, not Sanananda. One wonders how this was reconciled by the author and publisher.

Until he was discharged from the Army on 21st June 1946, Chard’s subsequent service was in Australia.

He returned to the 55/53rd Battalion in Queensland in 1943 before returning ill to Concord hospital and transferring to the Australian Army Catering Corps in November 1943.

In June 1944 he was transferred to the 31st Garrison Battalion and in July 1945 to the Special Investigations Branch Maritime Group of the Provost Corps, which guarded freight at wharves during its shipment to military forces.

The book makes no mention of this period, which could have produced some interesting stories.

I’m aware that ‘The Digger of Kokoda’ is based on the reminiscences of a very old man and recounted to someone who has no apparent experience as a military historian.

Early in the book (page 4), Lane states: "I also welcomed during the fact-checking process that if Reg wasn't 100% correct about something, he was close to it".

Really? There are several avenues to do such checking apart from the voluminous amount of books and articles about the Kokoda campaign, including the Australian government’s official war histories, the units’ war diaries and the hundreds of documents lodged with the National Library of Australia.

In his Introduction, Lane mentions that three other Kokoda veterans (Ray Gentles, Lloyd Birdsall and Dick Payten) were present when he first heard Mr Chard speak at a Kokoda Day function on 3 November 2019 and was inspired to write the book.

I wonder whether Lane approached these men or other Kokoda veterans for information and verification. Unit associations and their newsletters are another great source of information. Were the 55/53rd and 2/33rd Battalion Associations canvassed?

Then there are authorities like Wallace ‘Soc’ Kienzle, a name long associated with Kokoka, and Captain Charlie Lynn of Adventure Kokoda, who has trekked the Trail more times than he can remember.

And what of Pan MacMillan, which published the book and bear responsibility for its content.

Basic enquiries during the editing process would have revealed the discrepancies, some of which I have referred to in this article.

Apart from the factual errors, ‘The Digger of Kokoda’ has a tone of improbability and hyperbole about it.

My appraisal is that this book does not contribute usefully to our knowledge of the Kokoda campaign, especially when there are so many more highly detailed and thoroughly credible sources of information available.

Further reading

‘Forty questions about The Digger of Kokoda’ by Peter Stanley, Honest History, 8 August 2022

The controversy was also covered in The Australian (‘War Memorial under fire for book’s massacre contention’, 4 August 2022; ‘Massacre controversy overshadows Kokoda Track biography’, 23 July) and The Canberra Times (‘Criticism of Reg Chard’s Digger of Kokoda book raises issues’, 14 August 2022)


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